Seahawks turn up the heat, have 20 sacks in past five games

RENTON — Throughout the first 10 games of the season in which the Seattle Seahawks defense failed to live up to the ridiculous standard set by the 2013 team, one of the worst questions you could ask a defensive lineman was this:

What’s wrong with the pass rush?

Through 10 games, the Seahawks had just 13 sacks, a year after finishing eighth in the NFL with 44. At least in part because of a lack of pressure, opponents weren’t turning the ball over at nearly as high of a rate and quarterbacks were having considerably more success. And after Seattle’s loss to Kansas City, the question wasn’t whether or not the Seahawks would win the division or earn home field advantage, but rather if they could even salvage a postseason berth.

Yet if you asked Michael Bennett or Cliff Avril, the team’s top two pass rushers this season and last, what was wrong, the defensive ends would bristle at the question. After all, it wasn’t as if those two or any of their teammates, had stopped trying or had suddenly forgotten how to play football.

Even so, as talented as Bennett and Avril are, the sack numbers weren’t there for much of the season for them or their teammates. Part of it was simply teams adjusting their play calling, often settling for quick check-down passes rather than drop back and take a chance with both a dangerous pass rush and the league’s best secondary.

Plus, for all of their defensive talent, the Seahawks lost a significant amount of defensive line depth with defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons both released as salary cap casualties and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency.

And as much as pass rushing might look like a series of one-on-one match ups, there is a lot to be said for the chemistry that develops between players. If a defensive tackle has a feel for how the end next to him might attack his blocker on a particular play, then he has that much better chance of being in the right place if the quarterback is moved off of his spot.

“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Avril said. “I feel like we’ve been pass-rushing well all season, we just haven’t been getting the sacks. We still have a lot of hurries and hits, but it’s just that split second of getting the sack that we haven’t been able to get. But I think we are starting to learn how to pass rush with each other, because it does take chemistry, it does take understanding who’s pass rushing next to you, so I definitely feel like it’s a little bit of both.”

And whether it’s improved chemistry or just quarterbacks holding the ball longer, the Seahawks pass rush is beginning to resemble the unit that was so good late last season and in the playoffs. After registering just 13 sacks in the first 10 games, including zero in the loss to Kansas City that dropped Seattle to 6-4, the Seahawks have 20 in their past five games, all dominant victories that put them back in control of their own destiny.

Obviously the Seahawks would have loved to average four sacks a game all season, but if there are going to be ups and downs, they’re getting it going at the right time.

“The media can misconstrue the stats and say this and that, but sometimes you just don’t get them down and sometimes you do,” said Bennett, who leads the team with seven sacks, including one of Seattle’s four against the Cardinals Sunday. “You’ve just got to be getting them down at the right time. If you’re getting them down in the first four weeks and don’t get them down when it’s crunch time, then all those stats don’t matter, because you’re not playing in the big game.

“I think it’s a chemistry thing. We have a big rotation here, getting people in and out, getting people in the right positions. We have so many different plays we do, sometimes it takes a while. … Then when it comes along, it comes along. We’re doing a good job now, that’s all that really matters.”

Another big part of the improved pass rush has been the development of second-year tackle Jordan Hill, who the Seahawks hoped could be the replacement for McDonald, who had 5.5 sacks last season as an interior pass rusher. Hill had a quiet start to the season, then missed time with an injury, but has come on strong late in the season, with five sacks in as many games during Seattle’s winning streak.

There’s no doubt Seattle’s defense has been considerably better since that loss in Kansas City. That improvement has a lot to do with players getting healthy, most notably middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and strong safety Kam Chancellor. Also there is the much-discussed team meeting before the first Cardinals game, which seemed to make a real difference as well. But another huge factor in Seattle’s late-season turnaround has been a pass rush that, after a slow start to the season, is looking as disruptive as it did a year ago.

“It’s just been part of our elevated play, and it’s been a big factor,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve rushed the passer a lot better and made it harder on the quarterbacks. As the whole defense has played better, the pass rush has really been significant. The numbers are up in the last month. The intensity is really obvious, the timely pressures and stuff to add to the four-man rush has been good and helped us, and all in all, I think it’s been a big part of the shift in our effectiveness.

Injury update

On his weekly show on 710 ESPN Seattle, Carroll said starting wide receiver Jermaine Kearse “didn’t feel the big pop” when he injured his hamstring, but said, “that’s really touch-and-go to get back in a week’s time.” Carroll didn’t have any timetable on cornerback Tharold Simon, who hurt his shoulder late in the game.

Carroll said left tackle Russell Okung, who missed Sunday’s game with a bruised lung, should return to practice Wednesday. On center Max Unger, who has missed five games with a high-ankle sprain, Carroll said, “Talking with Max, he’s going to try to get through. He’ll do whatever he can to get out there this week knowing that if we can get a win, we’ll have a week off, but we’ll have to wait and see. We’ve seen a lot of high-ankle sprains that take six-to-eight weeks. That’s kind of the way we used to see it, but there have been a number of guys who have made it through quicker, so it’s really frustrating for Max; he’s got one of the long-term ones. So we’ll wait and see.”

Carroll was not asked about tight end Cooper Helfet, who left the game in the first half then came back to finish the game. Helfet himself provided an update on Twitter, however, saying he cracked a rib on the first play of the game, but expects to play this week.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com

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